Schiphol baggage handlers exceed health and safety standards, no checks for 12 years

Baggage and freight companies at Schiphol allow staff to perform too heavy work, while the Norwegian Labor Inspection Authority had demanded that this would no longer be done after 2009. After 2010, the inspection no longer checked. This is evident from a study carried out by NOS and Nieuwsuur.

Platform staff at Schiphol – NH Nieuws/Doron Sajet

Some of the baggage and cargo porters suffer from physical problems as a result of the heavy work. Concerned company doctors warn that half of the ground staff will develop an occupational disease if the work is carried out in this way for a long time.

Research by NOS and Nieuwsuur shows that various luggage and freight companies have known for years that this work can lead to physical overload. The companies are not doing enough to facilitate the heavy lifting and hauling work. In 2004, the Norwegian Working Environment Authority found that ‘two to four times the health limit value’ was exceeded when lifting luggage at Schiphol. Lifting aids were therefore made mandatory in the baggage hold, but they seem to work poorly and are hardly used.

At the time, the inspection also obliged to work with runways in small planes, to alleviate the kneeling of stacking suitcases. According to the inspectorate, this work was “extremely hazardous to health”. But not all baggage carriers seem to have enough runways, and some don’t have them at all. In the cargo department, roller systems on planes regularly fail, forcing employees to push cargo plates weighing thousands of kilograms.

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NOS’s and Nieuwsuur’s investigative editors spoke to around thirty baggage and cargo workers who work at Schiphol or who have recently left. Sixteen of them say anonymously that they have developed health problems due to the heavy work.

They say they went through the back or tore a muscle. They take a temporary rest and resume work. Nine people said they had permanent disability. One of them, for example, can no longer bend, another can no longer lift himself above his shoulders and a third employee says that his hand is worn out.

Until a few years ago, Ernst Jurgens worked as a company doctor in KLM’s baggage cellar. He claims to have reported an occupational disease (an illness or injury caused by work) 500 times in 14 years. – An insanely high number, he says.

“This system needs to change”

Anonymous company doctor in an action company

Jurgens estimates that around 2,000 people were employed by KLM in the baggage cellar during that period. Some of the staff he saw more often because they got complaints more often. “I ended up wondering what I’m really doing here: helping people recover and then putting them back into an environment where they got sick.” According to the doctor, some of the staff suffer permanent injuries or even become incapacitated.

Another company doctor at Schiphol is also concerned. He supervises fifteen to twenty baggage and freight workers who are home with ‘direct work-related complaints’. It was no different in recent years. About 300 baggage and freight workers work at his handling company. He sounds the alarm anonymously: “This system needs to change.”

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What are the standards?
According to the health and safety standards (based on the so-called NIOSH method), employees must not lift more than 23 kilograms. If they have to frequently do this above their power, squat or turn, it should not be more than 5 kilos, otherwise the risk of problems with the lower back is too great. Employees at Schiphol sometimes exceed these standards for several hours a day.

It is not a legal provision, but a standard that indicates from which weight the risk of health problems becomes too great. In the Netherlands, employers are obliged to prevent the health of their staff from being endangered (Arbobesluit article 5.2).

Schiphol cooperates with six different handling companies at the airport, which compete with each other for who can handle the airlines’ baggage and cargo. In response, various handlers acknowledge that baggage and freight work is physically very demanding and that employees actually still do some of it manually.

They say they want to address the issue on the platform by sharing tools with each other more often in the future. This intention has existed for years but has yet to come to fruition. KLM has invested the most in automation, but still recognizes that ‘not enough has been done’ to prevent occupational diseases.

‘Too much competition’

The luggage companies Swissport, Viggo and Dnata point to Schiphol Airport, which is responsible for purchasing lifting aids in the basement. According to Swissport and Viggo, Schiphol has even completely switched off the lifting aids for arriving flights because they are not working properly. Schiphol denies this, saying that the traders themselves are responsible for the use of the lifting machines.

Swissport claims that Schiphol has admitted too many different handlers, causing mutual competition. “Because of so much competition, you want to be able to trade more and more cheaply in order to win contracts, which is necessary for the survival of your company,” says Human Resources Director Michel van de Stolpe. “And it actually affects working conditions.”

The FNV confederation says it wants to sit down with the traders and Schiphol as soon as possible to introduce the lifting aids at lightning speed. The trade union also demands that the Norwegian Labor Inspection Authority checks again at the airport.

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